NAZARETH, Israel – When Pope Benedict XVI pays a visit next month to the town where Jesus grew up, he will bring brief attention to a Holy Land destination that is at once world famous and unjustly overlooked.
Like the tour groups bused into Nazareth for lightning visits on their way to somewhere else, the pope will see the Basilica of the Annunciation, on the site where Christian tradition says an angel told Mary she would bear the child of God.
Like most visitors, the pope likely won't have the chance to savor the shabby Ottoman chic of the Old City, consume too many of Abu Ashraf's honey-drenched pastries, or watch the young and hip show off their clothes and cars opposite the Dandana restaurant. It's safe to assume he will not experience the ear-spitting repertoire of Chaos, Israel's only Arab heavy metal band.
Benedict XVI arrives in Nazareth on May 14, and will celebrate Mass with thousands of worshippers on a nearby hillside.
He comes amid a modest but energetic renaissance here, one that has seen new restaurants opening up and signs of vitality in the neglected alleyways of the Old City. Those willing to go beyond the city's holy sites and shops hawking olive-wood crosses will discover the ideal place to experience Arab life in northern Israel and a base for exploring the rest of the Galilee.
A good place to start is the Fauzi Azar Inn, which opened four years ago in an abandoned mansion in the Old City after its 34-year-old founder, Maoz Inon, pressed his family and friends into service and cleaned out the pigeon droppings and rubble that had accrued there over decades of neglect.
Named for a former owner and referred to by those in the know simply as the Fauzi, the building has been restored to something of its former beauty. It is the kind of place where you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast of black coffee and pita covered in the local zaatar spice while a spiky-haired backpacker emerges bleary-eyed from one of the dorm rooms and shuffles off to brush her teeth. Overhead are flowers and cherubs painted on the ceiling by Lebanese craftsmen in the late 1800s.
The Fauzi, where dorm beds go for $17 (72 ILS) and private rooms for $50 (213 ILS) per person, is useful as a base for touring the city and the surrounding countryside. A new hiking route, the Jesus Trail, leads trekkers from Nazareth to Kafr Kana, where Jesus is believed to have turned water into wine, and on to other holy sites.
If hiking through Galilee hills sounds too strenuous, simply ask directions through the bazaar to Abu Ashraf's place while discarding any attachment you may have to healthy eating. Abu Ashraf Abu Ahmad can be found pouring batter or laying out circular pastries called "kataif" on a table facing the street.
Don't bother asking how they're made: The recipe is so secret, Abu Ashraf claims, that even his wife has no idea what it is. An outsider can only observe him stuffing batter with nuts and soaking it all in honey. The result is as good as it sounds and will provide the sustenance necessary to keep cruising the bazaar.
As you do, you might meet Hatem Mahroum, 30, who was Israel's welterweight boxing champion and has the immense hands and flat nose to prove it. He runs two shops here in the market and claims Nazareth's spinach is the best in the world. Or you might stop in at the Fahoum coffee store, where the smell of coffee beans and cardamom is overpowering and where the proprietor might subject you to a litany of complaints about how the city has neglected its old market in favor of the new Western-style shopping malls on the outskirts of town.
Those aren't the only complaints people here have, and they'll be happy to fill you in if you ask. Topping the list is the government's neglect of the town and its potential, part of a more general government disregard for the one-fifth of Israelis who are Arabs. Some might mention tensions between the Muslim majority and the one-third of the town's 65,000 people who are Christian. The two communities have sparred in the past, though today there is scant evidence of real conflict.
For a peek into Nazareth's ancient history, it turns out the place to visit is not a museum but a gift shop. The store, Cactus, became an archaeological site accidentally, when its owners undertook a renovation in the early 1990s and happened to discover an immense Roman bathhouse from the time of Jesus.
Martina and Elias Shama have since incorporated the ruins into their shop, and visitors can go underneath the floor to the arched basement where slaves stoked the fires that heated the rooms above. Ceramic pipes installed by ancient plumbers are still visible in the walls.
The bathhouse has helped revise the accepted view of what Nazareth was at the time of Jesus: A town with a grand public bath would have been a large urban center, not the poor backwater of popular imagination.
As evening approaches, you might be looking for another place to eat.
Those in a laid-back frame of mind would be advised to check out the ElReda, on the ground floor of another Ottoman mansion. The decor is heavy on wood and old photographs of mustachioed merchants, the menu includes fresh local produce and the soundtrack never changes: from 8 o'clock until closing time at 2 a.m. or so you will hear nothing but the ballads of the Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum. That's the long-standing rule decreed by the owner, Daher Zeidani, a professorial type with glasses hanging on a string around his neck.
"You can listen to other music during the day, but after you hear Umm Kalthoum you can't hear anyone else. That's why you finish the day with Umm Kalthoum," he explained.
A taste of the younger Nazareth scene can be had not far away at Dandana, opened in 2006 by Fadi Saba, 31, and his twin brothers, Shadi and Rami, 27. Dandana serves European-style food and alcohol, and some nights the Sabas push the tables aside, bring a DJ, crank up the Arabic pop music and dance.
The Sabas say they are well-enough known around town that Nazareth daughters put them on the phone to calm parents worried about curfew infractions. "We tell the parents 'don't worry, they're in good hands,'" Fadi Saba said.
At the bar, the brothers said, you might meet local celebrities like soccer players or the members of Chaos, Nazareth's contribution to Israel's heavy metal scene. The band's MySpace page says the band started as "four friends from Nazareth" and identifies its style as "melodic death metal."
The town's young people are increasingly liberal, with young women far more likely to go out at night dressed to kill than they were a decade ago, Saba said. There are conservatives in the town, including Muslims who oppose drinking alcohol, he said, but they largely "keep it to themselves." There's no better place in northern Israel to spend an evening, he said, but acknowledged word was slow getting out.
"Take someone from New York or from Germany, and they'll only know Nazareth from the Bible- they think people over here are still riding donkeys," he said.